Hot Lots: These 7 Artists Emerged as Market Sensations During This Year’s Star-Making Auction Day Sales

Alex Gardner, Salman Toor, Christina Quarles, and other artists drastically outperformed expectations.

Salman Toor, Rooftop Party With Ghosts 1 (2015). Photo courtesy Christie's.

As we’ve seen since the spring, there can indeed be auctions in the year 2020, even if they’re taking different form. Last week, Sotheby’s rolled out a new approach that combined Impressionist, modern, and contemporary sectors into one big live inventory-clearing bazaar. With no transition to a sense of normalcy likely before the fall of 2021 (sorry!), expect many more innovations in the coming year.

Contemporary art day sales, however, remain relatively unchanged by the transition to online-only events. Though often overshadowed by the marquee evening auctions, the day sales are still the best forums to spot burgeoning market stars, and where momentum around an untested artist can cause prices to hurtle past high estimates many times over.

Here’s a sampling of the artists who exceeded expectations at day sales over the past few weeks. Keep your eye on them all. They could be slotted into an evening auction before you know it.


Salman Toor, Rooftop Party With Ghosts 1 (2015)

Auction: Christie’s New York, December 3

Estimate: $100,000 to $150,000

Sold For: $822,000

Salman Toor had a better 2020 than most of us. After a few-month delay, his first-ever museum show opened at the Whitney last month (on view through April). In June, it was announced that the 30-something artist, who was born in Pakistan and lives in New York, would join the roster of Luhring Augustine, the star-making gallery that this year celebrated its 35th anniversary.

The year ended on a high note, too. Christie’s had plans to offer up the artist’s third painting to hit the auction block this year, Rooftop Party With Ghosts 1 (2015), the first panel of a gigantic tryptic shown at Aicon Gallery the year it was made. Just hours before the sale at Christie’s, Phillips Hong Kong sold a Toor painting for $520,000, pushing expectations sky high—but Toor blew that figure away when the painting sold for $822,000. Another similar-sized painting is set to hit the block at Phillips London on Tuesday—it’s got a $80,000 high estimate, but expect it to go for much higher.



Christina Quarles, Tuckt (2016)

Christina Quarles, Tuckt (2016). Photo courtesy of Phillips.

Auction: Phillips New York, December 8

Estimate: $70,000 to $100,000

Sold For: $655,200

In December 2017, Jeffrey Deitch included a group of paintings by Christina Quarles in “Abstract/Not Abstract,” the annual show he organizes with Larry Gagosian in Miami. (This year’s version was held online.) Several observers noticed that the then-32-year-old Quarles—just a year out of Yale’s MFA program—was given prime placement among such established stars as Jeff Koons, Rudolf Stingel, Sterling Ruby, and Christopher Wool. This was no mistake: At the opening, Deitch called Quarles “the hottest artist in America right now.”

That hype has only gotten more deafening and, in the past year, paintings by Quarles have consistently sold in the six figures. Last week at Phillips, a painting from 2016 smashed all the artist’s previous records, selling for more than six times the high estimate. The new mark follows a sold-out show at Pilar Corrias in London, where the dealer sold works for as much as $200,000 to high-profile collectors and institutions. Next year, Quarles’s delayed solo show opens at the MCA Chicago, debuting dozens of paintings and sculptures.

In addition to Corrias, the artist is also repped by Regen Projects in Los Angeles, and has shown with David Castillo in Miami. But the consignor of Tuckt acquired the work from its original owner in a deal brokered by international mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth. Just putting that out there.


Bernard Frize, Néoco (2004)

Bernard Frize, Néoco (2004). Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

Auction: Sotheby’s Paris, December 11

Estimate: $49,000 to $73,000

Sold For: $198,000

Bernard Frize has long been a hero in his home country of France, showing in Paris with Perrotin, while having shows in London with Simon Lee and in Los Angeles with the legendary Patrick Painter. But he hasn’t seen much auction action until this month. On December 3, a painting sold for $276,000 at Phillips’s evening sale in Hong Kong, and then days later, at Sotheby’s Paris, another went for $198,000—well over its high estimate of $73,000. Some of the artists on this list just started showing in galleries a few years back, but this boomlet of prices for Frize shows that even septuagenarians can have their day in the market spotlight.


Alex Gardner, Moment (2018)

Alex Gardner, Moment (2018). Photo courtesy Phillips.

Auction: Phillips New York, December 8

Estimate: $20,000 to $30,000

Sold For: $170,000

Last December, Kehinde Wiley unveiled his massive sculpture Rumors of War at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and, despite being diagnosed with ALS that previous spring, the late collector Bill Royall was there to greet Wiley as he gave the work to the city of Richmond. Royall and his wife, Pam, spearheaded the acquisition of the work and, over the course of decades, acted as some of Richmond’s more generous and vigorous collectors of contemporary art, even opening a gallery on West Main Street to show off their holdings.

Following Bill Royall’s death in June, his widow consigned a few works to Phillips, including blockbuster masterpieces by Henry Taylor and Barkley L. Hendricks. But one work by the young Black artist Alex Gardner may have been the sleeper hit of the collection. In his first ever appearance at auction, Gardner saw his 2018 painting Moment, which the Royalls bought from New York gallery The Hole, sail past the $30,000 high estimate and sell for $170,000. It might have been the first time someone had consigned a Gardner painting to auction, but it certainly will not be the last.


Ayako Rokkaku, Untitled (2012)

Ayako Rokkaku, Untitled (2012). Photo courtesy Christie’s.

Auction: Christie’s Hong Kong, December 2

Estimate: $45,000 to $71,000

Sold For: $306,000

In 2003, when she was just 21, the self-taught Japanese artist Ayako Rokkaku won the Scout Prize at Geisei, the biannual Tokyo art fair founded by artist Takashi Murakami that cuts dealers out completely and lets artists stage their own booths. Since then, Rokkaku has continued to make her manga-inspired, largely hand-painted works, which often involve cartoonish depictions of young girls, like a more day-glo Yoshitomo Nara.

While Rokkaku hasn’t whipped American collectors into a frenzy, that could change soon. In early December, during the day sales at Christie’s Hong Kong, a distinctive Rokkaku work sold for $306,000, well above the high estimate of $71,000, marking a new record for the artist. Days later, at the Taiwan auction house Ravenel, that record was smashed to bits when another painting, The Sisters, sold for $416,000. It seems it might be hard for the US auction houses to ignore this artist for much longer.


Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, Eve on Psilocybin (2018)

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, Eve on Psilocybin (2018). Photo courtesy Phillips.

Auction: Phillips New York, December 8

Estimate: $30,000 to $40,000

Sold For: $252,000

On the morning of December 7, the powerful London tastemaker Victoria Miro announced that she was adding a new artist to her gallery’s roster: Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, who had been chosen as one of the four artists to represent Zimbabwe in the 2019 Venice Biennale despite the fact that she was just 26 at the time and will not finish her MFA at the Ruskin School of Art until 2021. Perhaps some reading the announcement noticed that, incidentally, Hwami was making her auction debut the next morning at Phillips New York.

Set in the coveted first slot of the sale, usually reserved for the lots with the most feverish interest, Hwami’s psychedelic mushroom trip portrait Eve on Psilocybin set the sale on fire, as multiple bidders pushed the price up to $252,000, well above the high estimate of $40,000. How many artists have sold in the mid-six figures nearly a year before leaving grad school? Certainly not many.


Joel Mesler, Untitled (One Day at a Time) (2018)

Joel Mesler, Untitled (One Day at a Time) (2018). Photo courtesy Christie’s.

Auction: Christie’s New York, December 3

Estimate: $20,000 to $30,000

Sold For: $87,500

Joel Mesler started out as an artist in Los Angeles before opening a gallery in Chinatown, more as a conceptual prank than a fully-formed business. By 2008, however, he had moved to New York, and the space he opened in Chinatown was enough of a success that he decided to abandon the art career in favor of actually trying to make money with the whole art-selling thing.

And yet, starting in 2016, Mesler began to have a few shows of his own work, and he developed a distinct style that incorporates his fraught childhood in Beverly Hills and the mythos of Hollywood. Fast forward four years and it’s clear that Mesler’s once-abandoned art career is very much alive. After a series of solo shows—at Harper’s in New York, Kantor Gallery in Los Angeles, and Simon Lee in London—Mesler’s paintings hit the auction block for the first time this month. Both outperformed expectations. Untitled (One Day at a Time) sold at Christie’s on December 3 for $87,000, well above its high estimate, and a few days later, at Phillips, another untitled painting from 2018 sold for $81,900.

There’s long been rumors of a Joel Mesler show at a gallery much larger than the ones he’s shown at before. Who knows if any of the $200-a-pop portraits he often paints as performances will end up at auction once that happens.

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